Carson Ellis on The Decemberists: “I really did get sick to my stomach when I heard that line”

Music Features the decemberists

Carson Ellis’ work, if not her name, should be easily recognizable for anyone who’s ever picked up a Decemberists album. From the shadowy bodies floating into a sickly, sepia-tinged sky on the cover of the band’s 2002 debut, Castaways and Cutouts, to the wizened limbs gracing the front of their latest, The Hazards of Love, Ellis has illustrated each of the band’s record covers in collaboration with frontman Colin Meloy, who she met while studying painting at the University of Montana. Then, Ellis made gig posters for Meloy’s college band, Tarkio; years later, the couple is married and living in Portland, Ore., where Ellis makes art, including, most recently, a whole mess of kids’ books.

In February, when The Decemberists gathered at Newspace studios in Portland for Paste‘s May cover shoot, Ellis dropped Meloy off and took some time to talk about her work on The Hazards of Love‘s artful packaging (including a recent change in cover art), plus the pitfalls and joys of working (and living) with a guy who routinely slaughters kids in his songs.

Paste: Someone said [Hazards‘ cover] went from white to black.
Ellis: It went through a lot of different changes. It was really a struggle trying to figure out what exactly we wanted to do with it. And actually, the art too—we had a totally different idea for the record [art, at first]. The art was pretty much done, but then we realized it really suit the album at all. So that was really a bummer—we spiked that and started from scratch.

Paste: When did you start working on the art for it?
Ellis: It must have been like, November or early December that I started sketching on the first idea, and then I think I was done with that idea around New Year’s—and then we scrapped it and started a different one.

Paste: What was the matter with the first version of it?
Ellis: The first version of it was more psychedelic, which I was really excited about. But the sketch I did for it was in pencil, and it looked really dark and kind of sinister, and I think it fit the record a lot better. And then I’d recently been playing around with colored pencil and liking the way it looked, and Colin liked the way it looked—we thought it was a cool, classic medium for, like, 60s folk records. But then when I did it in colored pencil, it just looked really way too sweet. It took forever, and we finished it, I think, in the middle of the night, and we looked at it and were, like, “Wow, that’s not going to work at all.”

Paste: Was it cute? [Laughing]
Ellis: It was really cute. It had flowers and it had some insects and things that I thought would make it look scary, but it just really didn’t look scary. [I’m] gonna give it to Jenny [Conlee, The Decemberists’ organist]… It had columbine in it, and she said, “Oh, I love columbine!”

Paste: Does that happen a lot, where there’s a draft and it’s a half hour away from being finished and it doesn’t work out?
Ellis: Well, Because Colin and I are married and we live together, we talk about the ideas for the artwork with a lot of time in advance of the record. We started talking about it before half the songs were written. Colin has really specific ideas about visual art, about record covers—it’s a subject dear to his heart—so it’s certainly as much him brainstorming as me. And usually by the time it’s time to sit down and start doing the art we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do in our minds, but this time I guess—we had a vague idea. We kept going back and forth—and I should also mention that we worked with a very talented designer. His name is Mario Hugo, and you should definitely give him big props. Not only because he’s super talented but because he was super patient. The way we work is that we’re constantly collaborating, because [Colin and I] live together, so I’m constantly working on it, he’s looking over my shoulder… So we’re constantly collaborating on it, whether or not we feel like we’re actively doing it or not. He’s just always coming up over my shoulder and being like, “I don’t know about that.” [Laughs] Yeah, it can really nerve-wracking… But you know, it’s nice.

So anyone we work with, designer or otherwise, is inevitably out of the loop on our collaboration process. And I feel like we talked to Mario about it—“We love your work and we want to collaborate with you,” and we would all come up with an idea, and over the course of a weekend we would change our minds completely and call him on Monday and be like, “We scrapped that!” So he was incredibly patient with changing ideas in the middle and changing the color scheme completely. We ran him through the ringer on that. We came up with—the color scheme we ended up using? We [all] came up with initially. It was one of the original comps that he sent us. And then however many months later when we finally saw the idea that [Colin and I] came up with on the Internet, we sat and thought, “We don’t really like that.”

Paste: Did you go crawling back to Mario?
Ellis: [Laughing] We totally did, and he was so gracious… I think that this is a really complete collaboration between Colin, Mario and I. I did the art, Colin came up with a lot of the concepts, and I think what Mario did the design is not something we could have done on our own… Mario was a total keeper. He was awesome. I hope he’ll work with us again. [The final version] makes a lot more sense. It’s way darker. And to Mario’s credit, it was the one he was pushing for from the beginning—and, really, the one that everyone was pushing for. The people who saw it at Capitol were like, “Definitely this one.”

Paste: What was it about the lighter one that you guys liked?
Ellis: That one was more Colin’s opinion. I think he felt, like, maybe it was too intense or something? The more I look at it, it doesn’t feel all that intense, but compared to all the other record covers I’ve done for The Decemberists, it’s so much darker, palette-wise—they’ve got, like, sepias, white. But that was why we hired Mario—because thought, “We have to take a departure, we have to get some new eyes on this, to get us away from all that stuff,” because we felt like we were already doing the same thing.

Paste: How did you draw the characters [from Hazards‘ musical narrative, which are all illustrated in the album booklet]? Because I know you did that for The Crane Wife. Especially for this one, when there were such specific characters, did he tell you, “I think this is what these people look like”?
Ellis: Well, you know how I drew these—I went online and looked at tons of old, like, carte de visite and cabinet cards, old photo portraiture, and then just looked until I found ones that reminded me of the characters, and then changed them a little. [Pulls up images on her laptop.] Like, this guy was wearing a straw hat—this was the rake—he had this straw hat that was, actually, at a rakish angle, and it was so kind of hokey, a little too much, that I took it out—it was just too campy Victorian. So I took the hat out. And he was standing but I put him in the chair. And actually these [details around the rake’s portrait, pictured above] are photos that I drew from that I found on the Internet. I printed them out and made mirror images of them and then drew from those.

Paste: Do you do any work on the computer, or is it all hand-drawn?
Ellis: No, I clean things up a little bit on the computer after they’re drawn, but with these I did all that work. It was funny—I’d find pictures that I really liked for the characters, and I’d be like, I know people are going to look at this and be like, “That is not at all what I pictured Margaret to look like!” I was thinking like, sort of when you love a book so much and you go to see the movie and it’s like, “Oh God, I can’t believe he cast her as that.”

Paste: It’s weird, because I’ve just been picturing Becky [Stark] and Shara [Worden, who voice the characters].
Ellis: I know. Well, she’s kind of like Becky, and she’s a little bit like Shara… They are both such amazing people, and they’re both so intense and, like, unearthly in their own ways—they’re sort of the perfect people to be singing these two parts. So yeah, After I drew them, Jason, who’s the Decemberists’ manager, was like, “Can you please make the fairy queen look like Shara?” She already does, kind of—she doesn’t really look like Shara, but she has the same ability to look intense as Shara.

Paste: Will this stuff also make its way onto, like, t-shirts?
Ellis: I don’t know. We’ve done it before with, I think, The Crane Wife—the album cover, we put it on a t-shirt. I’m not as partial to t-shirt designs that are printed with graphic drawings.

Paste: When you do stuff with the merchandise, is that a whole other process? Because they’re not as tied to characters or the music, sometimes.
Ellis: They’re not. The way the record cycle works is, we start brainstorming and sketching after the record gets made, and then it’s a crush of doing the album art, doing the booklet art, doing any art that might go on the website if it gets revamped for the record release. Then it’s getting ready for the tour, so that’s like backdrop and t-shirts.

Paste: I know you did the backdrops for at least one tour—the one with the river and the deer. Was that done specifically for a backdrop?
Ellis: It was, and in fact the first one—I’ve done a bunch of them, and I think that was the only one done specifically for [a tour]. I did two for the tour that was canceled, and those were done specifically for that. The one before that was the gatefold design for The Crane Wife—that was done for the gatefold and then it made sense to use it for the backdrop. And then there were a couple before that where Colin had just gone through stuff I’d drawn.

Paste: What’s it like to see them blown up?
Ellis: It’s kind of weird! It’s amazing. It’s awesome, I love it. [Laughs] …It’s a neat process. When you look at it up close, it’s not pixelated. It looks like it’s actually painted on the thing.

Paste: Do you guys get to keep those after?
Ellis: They’re all in storage somewhere.

Paste: I guess that would be weird, to have them hanging in your house.
Ellis: They’re so big, you couldn’t even hang them in a gallery.

Paste: Are you involved in designing the stage for the tour for this album?
Ellis: Yeah, for some of the things I’ll do something like make props—the last one, the last big tour was the one that was cancelled, we had something kind of elaborate. I hired these prop-makers to make—it was going to be alternating nights on the tour. One night was going to be woods and deer-themed, the other was going to be knights. So I hired these guys to make all these huge leaves and branches and stuff—

Paste: It must be a really strange storage unit.
Ellis: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, imagine if you were a robber breaking into a storage unit—

Paste: You would be so confused! [Laughs] What else are you working on?
Ellis: I do mostly kids’ books these days. I did, like, three in the past year alone, and I’m about to start working on another. And then I do tons of, like, odds-and-ends illustration work—a lot of that stuff is for organizations in town and charity and stuff, or benefits that happen. And then I do some fine arts stuff. I have an opening tonight in town… I was going to have a solo show in New York, which was going to be my first one, but the gallery just tanked.

Paste: Had you done a lot of work for it?
Ellis: I’d done a lot of the work. And now it’s in storage—no. Now I’m just putting it in separate group shows… I don’t really make much time for it. I’m not much of a studio, gallery artist. But I dig it, I like being a part of it.

Paste: Do you feel like you’re known as “The Decemberists’ illustrator”?
Ellis: I think so, because these books are coming out and I’m reading—one of the books came to our house, we got an advance copy of it, and on the flap it says, “Carson Ellis, known best for…” [Laughs] So I guess that’s the answer to your question.

Paste: You’ve been doing stuff with them for—even before The Decemberists, you did the Tarkio posters. Has it always been that kind of relationship with Colin?
Ellis: Yeah. When I did the Tarkio stuff we were in college, and we were just roommates. We weren’t sweethearts until long after college, but we did always like to collaborate on stuff. I think Colin has such an acutely visual mind—he knows exactly what he wants in a record, he can visualize it perfectly—and I think in me he found a willing conduit. [Laughs]

Paste: Can he draw?
Ellis: No. He draws this one little guy that looks like Morrissey, with this pompadour and a guitar. So whenever I get frustrated I’m like, “Maybe you should draw your own record cover—you could draw that little guy.”

Paste: When you work with people and they have an idea, is it more difficult to interpret when it’s not his?
Ellis: Yes and no. It’s a way different process working with everyone else in the world. Working with Colin is a lot harder because he has such a specific idea in mind. I don’t want it to sound like I’m just his art slave, because I do get to exercise a lot of creative autonomy and we do wrestle over the ideas, and battle over them, and they are collaborative. But I was explaining to him in this last process, because I got kind of frustrated with how intimate our collaboration was sometimes, like, “God, when I work for someone else that I don’t know, they give me a concept or something to read and say, ‘Illustrate this,’ and then I give them three ideas, and they pick one, and then I draw it, and they do some revisions, and then I do a final, and then, you know, they don’t get to come up to me when I’m sitting at my desk at two in the morning and be like, ‘I don’t like that!’” It’s just too much. But then, on the other hand, there’s something really way more personal and gratifying, working on The Decemberists’ records. Not to mention, I’m really inspired by the music. I love the project.

Paste: Was it really scary at first? I’m sure you were there for a lot of the writing process. Did it ever seem like, “Oh God…”
Ellis: [Laughs] Like, “The Rake’s Song”—

Paste: I was going to ask about that. I mean, he’s singing about killing children—is that something you let your son listen to?
Ellis: Yeah, fully, he’s definitely heard it—he hasn’t been shielded from any of it. But that song was really… There’s been a lot of really gnarly Decemberists stuff, and I am definitely a firm believer that artists can write about whatever they want, they can be whatever they want. That’s what makes writing, song-writing interesting. There’s been some songs—there’s a song on the first record about Nazis, and I’m Jewish. Me trying to explain that to my grandmother was a horrifying thought. But I do think that it’s all for the sake of art. That one, “The Rake’s Song,” I really did get sick to my stomach when I heard that line about burning his body… I’ve listened to it again and I’ve kind of gotten used to it, but it’s been the only time that I’ve ever heard something in Colin’s songwriting that was like, “Oh my God, please don’t go there.”

Paste: Is it weird thinking, here’s this person that has this weird stuff going on inside of his brain—
Ellis: No, it’s totally not. I don’t feel like it makes him sinister, I feel like it makes him interesting.

Paste: So what did you say to him?
Ellis: I was just like, “Oh God, no!” [Laughs] But it stuck… That song is funny. Sometimes I’ll be standing—he’s played that song out a lot, it’s one of the songs he played at shows, and I’ll be standing around with friends and the audience and he sings that line and maybe it’s just my imagination but I feel like people look at me like, “You have a child with him!”

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